Mapping the Fairy-Tale Heroine’s Journey

Into the Dark Forest: Mapping the Fairy-Tale Heroine’s Journey
by Theodora Goss, PhD

Since the publication of Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and the popularization of his concept of a “hero’s journey,” described on the cover of the New World Library edition as “a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the world’s mythic traditions,” attempts have been made to formulate a similarly universal “heroine’s journey.” My paper is not one of those attempts. In it, I make a significantly more modest claim: that if we examine a particular subset of European fairy tales, we find a pattern of narrative elements constituting a “fairy-tale heroine’s journey.” This subset is small but important: it consists of fairy tales that focus on women’s lives, from childhood to marriage, and includes some of the most popular tales that have come down to us from fairy-tale writers and collectors such as Charles Perrault, the Brothers Grimm, Madame de Beaumont, and Alexandr Afanas’ev. When I mention fairy tales I consider part of this category (which are listed in my handout), you will recognize most if not all of their names: these are not tales that have fallen into obscurity. They are still being published in or as children’s books, usually for young girls; some of them have been filmed as Disney animated movies. They are important because for generations, they have presented to girls and women what society considers the natural pattern of a woman’s life. They have done so directly as literature for children, but also indirectly, by influencing adult fiction written for a female audience. This is the pattern of “Cinderella,” “Snow White,” and “Beauty and the Beast”: it is also the pattern of Jane Eyre.

In this paper, I will attempt to describe this narrative pattern, which I have (appropriately for fairy tales or self-help programs), divided into twelve steps. I will show how these steps appear in a variety of tales that fit the fairy-tale heroine’s journey pattern. This pattern functions like the underlying pattern that constitutes an ATU tale type: each element occurs in most, but not necessarily all, of the “fairy-tale heroine’s journey”-type tales, and elements can occur in different order or have different meanings from tale to tale. Some elements appear in certain version of a tale and not others. Nevertheless, I argue that they constitute a recognizable pattern that allows us to identify tales of this type, or perhaps meta-type, since it includes a variety of ATU-type tales. My analysis is influenced by the way in which Francisco Vaz Da Silva identifies symbolic equivalences between versions of the same tale type, as well as Marina Warner’s and Karen Rowe’s descriptions of how female tale tellers have used fairy tales to express their values and concerns.

Here are the narrative elements that I include in the fairy-tale heroine’s journey:

Step 1: The heroine receives gifts.
Step 2: The heroine leaves or loses her home.
Step 3: The heroine enters the dark forest.
Step 4: The heroine finds a temporary home.
Step 5: The heroine meets friends and helpers.
Step 6: The heroine learns to work.
Step 7: The heroine endures temptations and trials.
Step 8: The heroine dies or is in disguise.
Step 9: The heroine is revived or recognized.
Step 10: The heroine finds her true partner.
Step 11: The heroine enters her permanent home.
Step 12: The heroine’s tormentors are punished.

Why do these elements occur in the narrative pattern I have described? I believe they reflect the patterns of women’s lives in the countries where they were told and written down, from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. Unlike Campbell, who claims that the hero’s journey is a universal mythic pattern, I claim that the fairy-tale heroine’s journey is a culturally and historically specific narrative that has been naturalized and universalized until we have come to accept it as the pattern of women’s lives in the Western world. Although we may not notice it in our cultural narratives, it is part of a social construction of womanhood that has affected women’s lived experiences.

This paper constitutes my first attempt to describe the fairy-tale heroine’s journey in an academic context: appropriately for a theory of popular narrative, it is based on thoughts published in a series of blog posts and then formalized in an article in Faerie Magazine. What I am about to present is both preliminary and provisional, and I hope you will forgive its present defects. It is meant as a point of departure: a way of testing some of the ideas I have developed while reading and teaching fairy tales, often to classes that consist primarily of female college students who are startled and sometimes dismayed to realize the extent to which the tales they read as children have formed their ideas about themselves and their expectations for their futures.

Let’s start by talking about the steps. I don’t have time to discuss how every step works in every story I’ve identified as a fairy-tale heroine’s journey tale, so I’ll try to give some representative examples. Most of these steps occur in most of the tales: often, when a step is missing in one version, it will appear in another.

Step 1: The heroine receives gifts.

The paradigmatic gift-giving scene in heroine’s journey tales occurs in Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty,” where the fairies invited to her christening give her all the attributes necessary for a young lady at the court of Louis XIV, such as beauty, grace, and the ability to play every musical instrument. However, almost all of these tales include gifts, by which I mean an object or attribute freely given, rather than as a reward or in exchange. In some tales, the givers are fairies. Perrault’s Cinderella receives her coach, gown, and glass slippers from her fairy godmother, although her German counterpart Aschenputtle receives her dress and shoes from the doves that nest in the hazel tree growing on her mother’s grave. Other heroine’s journey tales also feature a gift-giving mother: the Goose Girl receives her mother’s handkerchief with three drops of her own blood, and Vasilisa the Fair receives a doll from her mother that will help her survive both her stepmother’s cruelty and Baba Yaga’s hut. Some fairy tale heroines receive gifts from their fathers: Donkeyskin receives three gowns and the donkey’s skin from her father, and Madame de Beaumont’s Beauty receives the rose she requested. She also receives gifts from the Beast, including a chest of dresses that magically appears at her father’s house. The lassie in “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon” receives a golden apple, carding comb, and spindle from the three old women she meets while trying to rescue her bear husband–here we have wise women as gift givers, as in the Grimm version of Sleeping Beauty, “Briar Rose.” There are no gifts in “Six Swans” but in its variant “The Seven Ravens,” the sister receives a chicken leg from the stars so she can use the bone to open a glass mountain. The kind girl in “Mother Holle” is rewarded for her industriousness by being showered with gold–that is not a gift. However, in Perraut’s “The Fairies,” another version of the kind and unkind girl tale type, the reward (having flowers and gems drop from her mouth when she speaks) is specifically referred to as a gift.

I’ve talked about the gifts in these tales at some length so you can see both the wide variety among them, and what I argue is an underlying similarity: in almost all these tales, the heroine is given attributes or objects that help her attract friends and helpers, overcome tribulations and trials, and earn her final reward. The gifts come in different ways, from different givers, and at different stages of the journey–they have different meanings. But they are part of a larger pattern–the journey that the fairy-tale heroine must make.

Step 2: The heroine leaves or loses her home.

In all of the tales that fit this pattern, the heroine either leaves her original home or loses it in some way. Snow White and the sister in “Brother and Sister” must leave their homes to escape persecution by a stepmother. Donkeyskin must leave her home because of persecution by her incestuous father. The Goose Girl and the lassie in “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon” leave their homes to be married, while Beauty leaves her home when her father loses his fortune, then leaves a second home to live with the Beast. Rapunzel is taken away from her home by a fairy or witch, depending on the version. Heroines who do not leave their homes lose them instead: Cinderella must live in her original home, but as a servant to her stepmother and stepsisters. She sleeps in the attic or sits among the ashes of the kitchen hearth. Sleeping Beauty both leaves and loses her home: in the Perrault version, she finds the forbidden spinning wheel in a castle in the country, rather than her family’s palace, and during her hundred-year sleep, she leaves behind her parents as well as the world she grew up in. When she wakes up, another family is on the throne. The common element here is loss: home is left behind or leaves the heroine behind in some fashion.

Step 3: The heroine enters the dark forest.

There is almost always a dark forest. It is usually where the heroine loses her way, but also where she finds friends and helpers and potentially, a place of refuge. Snow White is almost killed by the huntsman in the dark forest, but it is also where she finds safety in the dwarves’ cottage. Heroines who enter the dark forest include Donkeyskin, the Goose Girl, and the girl who speaks gems and flowers in Perrault’s “The Fairies.” Several heroines live in the dark forest: Rapunzel’s tower is located there, and it grows up around Sleeping Beauty’s castle. Vasilisa must enter the dark forest to reach Baba Yaga’s hut, the lassie in “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon” wakes up there after she loses her bear husband, and the heroine of “Six Swans” begins knitting aster shirts up a tree in the dark forest. The only exceptions to this pattern are found in Grimm’s Aschenputtel and Beauty and the Beast, where it is the father who ventures into the dark forest on his daughter’s behalf: Aschenputtle’s father brings her a hazel branch to put on her mother’s grave, and Beauty’s father brings her the fateful rose.

Step 4: The heroine finds a temporary home.

After they leave or lose their own homes, these heroines find temporary places to live and, often, learn whatever they need to before they move on. These temporary homes include the dwarves’ cottage for Snow White, Rapunzel’s tower, or Mother Holle’s house at the bottom of the well. Vasilisa’s stepmother moves her to a house by the forest, but Baba Yaga’s hut also becomes a temporary home where she gains the power to defeat her oppressors. Sometimes the temporary home is a portion of the original home, like Cinderella’s attic, or a portion of what will become the heroine’s permanent home, like the scullery of the castle where All Fur will eventually rule as queen. Sometimes the temporary home comes after what we believe to be the happy ending: in “Sleeping Beauty,” the princess is taken to a hunting lodge, where her ogre stepmother threatens to eat her and her children, an ending that does not appear in “Briar Rose.” However, the temporary home is never where the heroine ends up: it’s only temporary.

Step 5: The heroine finds friends and helpers.

Friends and helpers for the heroines of these tales include dwarves, doves, a magical doll, the head of a dead horse, and of course assorted fairies. The lassie in “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon” is helped by three wise women and four winds. In some stories, siblings are friends and helpers, such as the brothers in “Six Swans” or the troublesome brother in “Brother and Sister,” who remains a companion even when he causes so much trouble. In Perrault’s “Sleeping Beauty,” the cook becomes a helper when he saves the princess and her children from the ogre queen. Fairy-tale journey heroines rarely have to solve their problems alone: there is almost always someone to help them or keep them company.

Step 6: The heroine learns to work.

When I started researching the fairy-tale heroine’s journey, I was struck by how often it includes the heroine learning or performing some sort of household task, even when she starts out as a princess. Cinderella must cook and clean for her stepmother and stepsisters. Snow White, who probably never cleaned in her own castle, keeps house for the dwarves. Donkeyskin serves in the kitchen, and the Goose Girl tends her geese. Vasilisa must cook for Baba Yaga, and later she proves her skill as a weaver and seamstress by making a shirt for the Tsar. The girl who went down the well does housework for Mother Holle. Perhaps the most important task is performed by the princess in “Six Swans”: while she is in the dark forest, she sews her brothers six shirts made of asters to break the spell that has turned them into swans.

There are two important exception. While Basile’s Talia wants to spin, she falls under the fairy’s curse as soon as a piece of flax lodges itself in her finger, and of course Sleeping Beauty’s finger is pricked by the needle. Here we have the motif of domestic work, but flipped around: the heroine wants to learn domestic work and cannot. And in Charlotte Rose de la Force’s “Persinette,” the girl in the tower is taught, not housework, but the accomplishments necessary for an upper-class young lady, such as reading, painting, and playing musical instruments.

Now that we’ve gotten to step 6, let’s pause for a moment and consider where these steps are coming from. I contend they represent, not stages in some mythic journey, but fantastical representations of ordinary experiences women had in their lives, during the eras when these tales were being written down. Fairy-tale heroines learn housework and needlework because that is what most European women learned in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries. Even my mother, who grew up in nineteen-forties and -fifties Hungary, thought these were necessary skills for her daughter. She also told me about the gifts young girls would receive on special holidays or at particularly life stages. Heroines leave or lose their homes because women did leave–lower class girls to become servants or apprentice themselves to trades, upper class girls to schools or convents. What we are seeing, I believe, is the pattern women’s lives took at a particular period in time, turned into fantastical narrative. This includes both physical and emotional life stages. Dark forests did stretch across Europe; however, we have all also entered the dark forest metaphorically. Fairy tales are grounded in ordinary things, such as bread, trees, spinning wheels, and ordinary experiences, such as hunger, death, love. The fairy-tale heroine’s journey tales are no different. Let’s get back to the steps.

Step 7: The heroine endures temptations and trials.

Temptations are what the heroine must resist; trials are what she must undergo or overcome. Snow White is tempted by the corset laces, comb, and apple offered by the pedlar woman, who is her stepmother in disguise. Sleeping Beauty is tempted by the spinning wheel and its dangerous spindle. Rapunzel is tempted by the prince who visits her, and gives in to that temptation. The lassie in “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon” also gives in to temptation, seeing her bear husband in his human form and thereby losing him. The heroine’s trials include becoming a servant or kitchen maid, having to remain silent while she sews six shirts for her swan brothers, sleeping for a hundred years while princes die in the thorn forest, or marrying what she believes to be a beast. Over and over, it includes the possibility of dying, whether stabbed by a huntsman, burned at the stake, or eaten with sauce Robert. It also includes losing the man she loves or her children.

Step 8: The heroine dies or is in disguise.

This is perhaps the strangest step in the fairy-tale heroine’s journey. Heroines who undergo a literal or symbolic death include Snow White, Sleeping beauty, and the sister in “Six Swans,” who must stay silent for seven years. Some heroines are not dead, but not themselves either: Cinderella, Donkeyskin, and the Goose Girl are in disguise. They have lost their old selves, and cannot regain them until recognized by another. Vasilisa visits Baba Yaga’s hut surrouded by skulls, which is clearly a place of death, and Mother Holle’s county is underground. These are also symbolic deaths. Why must heroines die in these fairy tales? I suggest these deaths represent the rites of passage more common in traditional societies. Arnold Van Gennep showed that such rites often involve a symbolic death: the participant symbolically dies in one social state and is reborn in another. Before our modern era, rites of passage were more common in women’s lives: often, they would mark when a girl became marriageable. In the tales themselves, these deaths and disguises happen when the heroines are adolescents, just old enough for marriage.

However, there is an alternative pattern: in “Beauty and the Beast” and “East o’ the Sun and West o’ the Moon,” it is the male partner who is in disguise and symbolically dead. It is the heroine’s task to revive and recognize him.

Step 9: The heroine is revived or recognized.

This step is the logical corollary to the previous one. The heroine, or in some cases the hero, must be revived or recognized by another. The one who died must be brought back from the dead. The heroine of “Brother and Sister” must be both revived and recognized: once the king recognizes her as his wife, she miraculously comes to life again. Often the one who revives or recognizes the heroine is her true partner, but Vasilisa is saved by her mother’s blessing, and Mother Holle’s servant returns to the land of the living after having completed her tasks in the underworld.

Step 10: The heroine finds her true partner.

This step is very simple: the heroine marries an upper-class man. It is the inevitable ending of all fairy-tale heroine’s journey stories, and where it does not appear in one version of a particular tale, such as “Mother Holle,” it appears in another. Obviously, this step reflects a time when women were expected to marry, and marriage determined a woman’s material circumstances.

Step 11: The heroine enters her permanent home.

At the end of the fairy tale, the heroine finds the home she will remain in “happily ever after.” This is a place where she is no longer in danger, whether from ogres or wicked stepmothers. It is usually a castle.

Step 12: The heroine’s tormentor is punished.

Here we come to a litany of horrors. Stepmothers are forced to dance themselves to death in red-hot iron shoes. Stepsisters have their eyes pecked out. Sisters are turned into living stone statues. False servants are put in a barrel filled with nails and dragged along the street. Curiously, incestuous fathers and unfaithful kings are forgiven. It is the women who are punished, for what I would call the crime of being women in the wrong way. They are examples of what the heroines should not become. The fairy-tale heroine’s journey is both aspirational and disciplinary. It is built on the actual patterns of women’s lives, but also creates a pattern those lives should follow. Karen Rowe has described the all-female veillés that took place in certain parts of France–gatherings of women with their marriageable daughters “in which both generations carded wool, spun, knit, or stitched, thus enacting age-old female rituals. . . . Within the shared esprit of these late-evening communes, women not only practices their domestic crafts, they also fulfilled their roles as transmitters of culture” (Rowe 404). These are the sorts of spaces in which women gathered to transmit, often to a younger generation, cultural ideas and expectations about the patterns of women’s lives. As Marina Warner points out, “although male writers and collectors have dominated the production and dissemination of popular wonder tales, they often pass on women’s stories from intimate or domestic milieux” (Warner 408) such as the veillé.

Let me anticipate one response to the narrative pattern I have described: “Isn’t that the pattern of every fairy tale about women?” The answer, perhaps surprisingly, is no. It’s simply the pattern of the tales with which we are most familiar. When I searched among the fairy tale collections in my library, trying to find tales that fit the fairy-tale heroine’s journey pattern, I found the twelve listed on my handout. I suspect I could find more, but they are not particularly common among the hundreds of tales collected by folklorists such as the Grimms. And there are certainly tales about female characters that do not fit this pattern, such as “Tatterhood” and “Maid Maleen.” But the tales I’ve discussed have given us five Disney movies, and the pattern itself has given us a legacy that endures in writing for women. As I mentioned, Jane Eyre fits the pattern of the fairy-tale heroine’s journey, not because it’s some sort of universal pattern, but because Charlotte Brontë was consciously drawing on certain fairy tales, including “Cinderella” and “Beauty and the Beast.” If we had time, I could go through Jane Eyre and show how elements of its plot match the pattern I have identified, although the moor on which Jane wanders substitutes for the dark forest. Perhaps that is a topic for another paper. The legacy of Jane Eyre, and novels that share its plot structure, is a romance narrative that still effects how women think about themselves, their possibilities, and their positions in the world.

If it sounds as though I’m critical of the fairy-tale heroine’s journey, I am — and I’m not. It reflects the patterns of women’s lives over hundreds of years, and still affects the patterns of our own lives. It can be used to advance an agenda of domestication, as in Disney’s animated Snow White, or offer women their own quests, and their own possibilities for heroism. It’s also important to remember that this is only one narrative pattern found in stories about women: there are others, and perhaps some of them also deserve their own Disney movies.

Works Cited

Rowe, Karen E. “To Spin a Yarn: The Female Voice in Folklore and Fairytale.” The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar, Norton, 2nd ed., 2017, pp. 393-405.

Warner, Marina. “The Old Wive’s Tale.” The Classic Fairy Tales, edited by Maria Tatar, Norton, 2nd ed., 2017, pp. 405-14.

(This paper was originally give at the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts 38, in March, 2017. The image is an illustration for “Catskin” by Arthur Rackham.)

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8 Responses to Mapping the Fairy-Tale Heroine’s Journey

  1. mapelba says:

    I like discussing fairy tales with friends and students. Thanks for these steps. They give me something else to add to the conversations.

  2. Aliza Faber says:

    Fascinating. Why is it do you think that this pattern is the one of the tales we are most familiar with? Is it because it still resonates with us today somehow, even though a woman’s role has changed great deal from the elements you describe? Or do you think it has more to do with the fact that when Disney came around, these elements were still familiar? It makes me wonder if at some point less well known stories with different narratives will resurface.
    Thanks for sharing! I love reading your blog, always such interesting food for though 🙂

    • I’m not sure! I think it’s partly that there’s a lot of truth to it (the pattern still applies to women’s lives in many ways), partly that it’s the pattern society tells us women’s lives should conform to. And Disney’s had a LOT to do with it, although Disney’s also picked out the most popular tales, so it’s sort of like a self-reinforcing circle. I do see other patterns being published, but they tend to be in collections of feminist fairy tales that are consciously pushing back against this particular pattern–“Tatterhood” would be one good example. The other thing is, why are the men’s tales being lost? There are lots and lots of fairy tales about young men, but we don’t seem to retell those or make movies out of them. Which is a shame, actually . . . I’m so glad you like the blog! 🙂

  3. lynden wade says:

    What an interesting post; thank you for sharing! It’s really interesting that this pattern fits the most popular tales but doesn’t spread to the majority of fairy tale with a heroine. I also love your response above about the men’s tales being lost. There is lots of talk about active males and passive females in fairy tales, but these active males are often bit parts in stories about females. In stories with men as main characters they are often the youngest son and/or a supposed idiot who makes good despite his family’s lack of faith in him. Maybe we don’t tell these tales because we don’t want to give our sons the impression we think they are fools?!

  4. Lori Glenn says:

    I’m grateful for the thoughts in your article. I know you were looking at later fairy tales, but the steps also fit the much older tale of Eros and Psyche (although step 12 occurs earlier in the narrative.). I love that story and look forward to unpacking it using these narrative elements. It is also intriguing that the heroine usually enters a dark forest – the place of the wild, a place to become undomesticated so that she can traverse her own path.

    • It absolutely makes sense that it would fit Eros and Psyche, since that’s often seen as a precursor to Beauty and the Beast! I need to look at that tale myself in more detail . . . Thank you for the reminder. 🙂

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